A History of Weird Weather

About a month ago, my husband and I left the sunny shores of California and returned to the Midwest. While I adored my time on the West Coast (read about it here) there were some things I really missed there – especially thunderstorms. My fascination with stormy weather developed early, and I’ve spent a good portion of my life poking through meteorology and physics books. While we got the occasional lightning crackle and thunder grumble in Los Angeles, it wasn’t quite the same thing.

I was so excited to get re-acquainted with thunderstorms that one of the first things we installed in our new home was a top-shelf weather station. Not a bad thing to have around. Because as much as I love a good thunderstorm, I also have a high amount of respect for Mother Nature’s powers. Weather can turn our fortunes on a dime, destroy our homes and livelihoods, and severely maim and injure. Freak weather incidents have stopped armies in their tracks and even determined the outcomes of wars (lots more on that below – because you know I can’t let another post go by without mentioning military history).

In a nutshell, our fragile human lives are totally at the mercy of the weather, a fact driven home in this modern era of climate change. But the weather can also provide stunning entertainment for those willing to turn their eyes skyward. Not just with brilliant optical effects and unique, intricate cloud patterns, but also with bizarre phenomena, hilarious objects falling from the sky, and eerie electrical light shows. So, in honor of my reunion with one of my favorite hobbies, and just in time for those wacky Midwestern spring storms, please enjoy these historical anecdotes about our wild weather.

It’s Raining!

It doesn’t get much more relaxing than the steady drum of rain drops on the roof… at least when it’s water. In episodes all over the world, as far back in written history as you can imagine, humans have seen some crazy things drop out of the sky.

Like frogs. In the 1950s, one woman in Somerset, England recalled walking along a country road when she got caught up in a most peculiar rain shower. “It was not rain, it was not hail, and I realized it was soft,” says Mab Hollands. “…As I shook my hair, little oddities fell to the ground… frogs!” In 1939, also in England, dozens of people enjoying a day at an open-air swimming pool had things go sour when an overcast sky dumped thousands of frogs on their heads. And in 1954, Sutton Coldfield saw a shower of frogs that scared the daylights out of tourists visiting a naval exhibition. 

Frogs aren’t the only weird things to fall from the sky. In 1892, a thunderstorm in Germany provided a surprise feast when hundreds of freshwater mussels poured into the streets from above. In 1933, Worcester, Massachusetts recorded a rain shower of ducks, some of them encased in ice. In 1979, a resident of Southampton had his conservatory doused with mustard seeds, cress, and haricot beans, some of which later sprouted and bloomed into plants. But my personal favorite is what happened in Moberly, Missouri in 1995. After a tornado ripped through the area, it dropped a plethora of unopened soda cans from a bottling company over a hundred miles away. 

What causes these baffling rainstorms? The most popular theory is water spouts and tornadoes. Both of these have extremely powerful winds, pulling up objects (like wildlife and soda cans) and sucking them into the air. Since these objects can’t be sustained by the upper atmosphere winds for long, they soon drop back to earth and onto the heads of unwitting people down below. But hey, whatever gets you free soda and mussels.  

Floating Orbs?

While most of us are quite familiar with the run-of-the-mill air and ground lightning strikes, there are actually many different kinds of lightning. Such as bead lightning, bolts from the blue, ribbon lightning, and several forms of lightning phenomena including St. Elmo’s Fire, freak fireballs, and upper atmosphere lights known as sprites, jets, and elves.

But ball lightning gets the most attention in the weather phenomena history books. Sightings of the strange, spherical glowing orbs during thunderstorms have circulated for years. People have reported ball lightning entering their homes, skipping across their lawns, chasing their cars, and even zapping into airline cabins. Mild and serious shocks have resulted from some of these floating light balls.

One woman in a Midwestern Farmhouse in the 1940s had ball lightning spin across the kitchen and fuse together the dishes in her sink. In the 1980s, two Russian/Soviet Union airline pilots got the startle of a lifetime when ball lightning bounced through their cockpit and knocked out several of their navigating instruments. And in 2011, a giant ball of lightning slammed through an emergency service station in the Czech Republic, frightening the employees half to death and taking the computers offline.

A lot of these tales were written off as quack talk, but the tune changed when prominent scientists began telling them too. A University Professor of Engineering from Kent witnessed a glowing ball of lighting aboard a Pan Am flight from Washington to New York. A renowned physicist filed a ball lightning sighting during a thunderstorm in Budapest in 1954. Another physicist wrote up ball lightning in Nature magazine in April of 1970, after some came out of his own fireplace.

So what exactly is ball lightning? Well, even with all of our Hogwarts-worthy technology, many scientists and weather experts still don’t really know. A common theory is that it’s comprised of electric plasma residue from cloud-to-ground strikes. Another theory calls it “leakage” from surplus positive charges in a thundercloud that don’t have an igniting negative charge. Still another theory says that ball lightning is microwave radiation from the ionized air around lightning clouds. And plenty of experts maintain that it doesn’t exist at all, and people who report it are obviously tripping on mushrooms. I guess that’s the fun part about science. Only time, or someone’s smart phone, will eventually tell us more.

Mightier Than the Sword

And now onto the subject that I know best. As a lifelong student of military history, I fear war is one curse humans will never shake off. And weapons to harm our fellow beings only get scarier – poisonous nerve agents, nuclear missiles, drone strikes, cyber-attacks… But one weapon the warlords will never best is the weather. Meteorology has shown up in fine fighting form over many instances in military history, as if God himself came down to… well, put the fear of God into humans.

A very famous example came from the dreaded Mongol Empire in the late 1200s. The Khan clan, headed by Kublai at this time, had already taken over most of China and they wanted Japan next. With an absolute swarm of troops and a vast plethora of ships, victory seemed a pretty sure bet. Until a timely and quite powerful typhoon slammed the Japanese Coast just as Khan’s hosts arrived.

And they were no match for mother nature. Ships broke up like matchstick houses. Countless Mongol soldiers were hurled into the sea, where tens of thousands sunk to a watery grave. The few that did survive stumbled ashore just to be taken captive by the Japanese. The devastation was so complete that Japanese chalked it up to a miracle, coining the term “Kamikaze” for the divine wind that had saved them. A term that took on a much darker meaning in the closing years of World War II.

The forces of nature gained fame again when the British, led by Sir George Cockburn, laid siege to Washington D.C. in the summer of 1814. The occupation included setting fire to the city and Capitol buildings. Other than a few priceless artifacts pulled out of the melee by First Lady Dolly Madison, the destruction looked like it would be utterly complete.

But barely twenty-four hours later, ominous clouds gathered on the horizon. Unfamiliar with the wild (and quite deadly) New World weather, the British opted to keep up their shenanigans instead of seeking shelter. A costly mistake. Especially when a rare tornado dropped into the heart of the city, plowing through British canon emplacements and killing many soldiers. To add insult to injury, two hours of whipping rains doused all their fires. Although it’s not fair to say God was particularly picking on the British. After all, lots of DC buildings were damaged too. But still, the redcoats got the message and quickly left Washington to its tornado devices.  

They wouldn’t be the last to crack under weather pressure. During World War II, “General Winter” was a force to be reckoned with on more than one occasion. Most notably against the bloodthirsty German juggernaut in 1941. That summer, the Wehrmacht was too busy pounding Russian armies to pieces and closing in on Moscow to resupply their troops for the approaching cold season. An oversight that proved fatal when winter arrived.

It started with sopping rains that turned roads into muddy quagmires and pulled tanks and equipment into sinkholes. Then came the cold, which was brutal even by hardened Russian standards. Things went from bad to very, very ugly. The mercury plunged as low as forty below zero. Countless German soldiers froze to death, some right where they stood. Night watchmen went to sleep and never woke up. Entire tank units shut down as engines froze into solid blocks of ice.

It gave the Russians time to reorganize and refortify, and a slew of infamous conflicts, like Stalingrad, bogged the Eastern front down into horrible fighting. While it took the better part of four years to toss the Germans out of Russia, they never got close to Moscow again. Russia, and arguably the entire Allied cause, was saved by the icy cold blast of General Winter.

At least until 1944, when the Battle of the Bulge broke out. By autumn of that year, it had looked to everyone like the Germans were pretty well spent. So it came as an extra hard shock when in December, winter switched its allegiance to the Germans. Piles of snow and white-out fogs provided excellent camouflage as Hitler’s armies, outfitted in white, crashed across the Belgian landscape in a surprise attack. More frigid temperatures kept Allied planes on the ground and Sherman tanks frozen in place. Rainstorms turned infantry units into a sloppy quagmire, where cases of trench foot and pneumonia sky-rocketed.

A frustrating situation for everyone, especially world-famous General George S. Patton. A man who liked to keep things moving, the terrible weather quite literally brought him to his knees. “I’m tired of fighting mud and floods as well as Germans,” he reportedly said to the Third Army’s chaplain. “See if we can’t get God to work on our side.” The chaplain responded with a nice little prayer for good weather, and Patton had 250,000 copies printed up for distribution to his troops.   

With enough angry GIs and allied soldiers complaining, General Winter relented. Six days of very agreeable weather followed. Still cold, but dry enough to get the tanks and planes on the move. The counterattacks struck the final death knell for the Third Reich, and Patton awarded his chaplain with a bronze star.

The Meteorological Moral of the Story

As for the modern times, we have our own challenges to overcome. Climate change threatens all of us, and we don’t have Patton and his prayer cards to help us this time. But we do have some incredibly fine minds in the science world who are giving it their best shot. Cars and ground transport are going electric at an incredible pace. Wind and solar power have both seen major upticks in the last few years. Strides are coming in the airline industry, where many companies are striving to make their planes carbon neutral. And we can’t discount the heroic efforts of everyday people – young kids starting nonprofit companies to clean up the oceans. Up and coming inventors turning carbon into energy. City officials converting building roofs and parks into community gardens.

It seems really scary sometimes to see such sharp changes in our weather. Because indeed, we are at its total mercy. But it’s inspiring to see all the people who aren’t giving up or giving in. As many of the above stories prove, we can never control the weather. But we can help each other. We can hope. And on the weather’s comical wacky days, we can enjoy the show.

SOURCES

“Skies of Fury” – P. Barnes-Svarney & T. Svarny

“Weird Weather” – P. Simons

“The Nature Company Guides: Weather” – Burroughs, Crowder, Robertson, Vallier-Talbot, & Whitaker

“The Greatest War Stories Never Told” – R. Beyer

Smithsonian Magazine – “The Tornado that Saved Washington”

Wikipedia

 

All wacky weather photos by M.B. Henry – for more, check out my sky shots album by clicking here 

 

102 Comments on “A History of Weird Weather

  1. I hadn’t heard that Patton awarded his chaplain a Bronze Star! That’s too much! Thanks for the interesting weather post!

    • Anytime! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it. And yes – that prayer card story is one of my favorite ones about Patton. 🙂

  2. This is an awesome post! Nice to see a reference to froggy English weather. That is quite a famous story over here. Weather is a big talking point here, people always revert to it in small chat and feel very conscious of when they only have that to fall back on 😂

    Interestingly I’m currently reading Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman – do you know it? It’s so good. It’s a long one but then I managed to get through War & Peace and didn’t regret it, so.

    Daniel

    • So glad you enjoyed the post! And yes – I did notice a lot of the weird weather stuff I researched happens in England – no wonder the weather keeps you talking 🙂 I have not read that book but it sounds like one I might find interesting! And cheers making it through War & Peace, I’ve read Anna Karenina but not that one yet

  3. I’m not especially attached to stormy weather, but I do like having four seasons and don’t think I’d want to live somewhere where the weather is the same all year round.

    • I enjoyed it while it lasted 🙂 But I am ready for four seasons again, I like them all except winter, which I can begrudgingly admit has some beauty to it 🙂

  4. Fascinating to say the least. It reminds me of how insignificant we are when it comes to Mother Nature. I love the weather stories.

    • Me too! 🙂 🙂 So glad you enjoy them also. And yes – we are pretty small up against the universe! But even small things can make a big difference sometimes

  5. What wonderfully interesting post MB. I had no idea about any of the weather-influenced battles – amazing!! You’re so right about climate change being our next challenge. Let’s hope you’re right about the scientists and young technocrats figuring out how to get us back on track. Great photos too.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post! And yes – I share your hopes about climate change. I do what I can at home, but it’s not much in the grand scheme of things and my fingers are crossed for the up and coming minds!

  6. A wonderfully eye-opening post, MB! (And that’s not a reference to the eye of a hurricane. 🙂 ) Packed with interesting information, and engagingly written.

    • Boy you’re getting hard to keep up with on the pun front! Going to have to up my game here…

    • I love it – but also have a high regard for it, as in, I always like to observe from a safe, sheltered distance 🙂

  7. I had no idea all those different creatures had “rained” down upon the earth. I can’t imagine getting pelted by mussels. Ouch!

  8. As usual, an admirable amount of research has gone into this, M.B. The two heaviest thunderstorms I have experienced have each been in France, late summer.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it – I’d say the research has been ongoing for most of my life 🙂 Weather is a very fascinating study. We didn’t experience any thunderstorms when we visited France, maybe next time!

    • So glad you enjoyed it! And wow that weather pattern sounds more like a US Midwestern spring!

  9. This is such an interesting post! I really enjoyed this and how you ties it all up at the end. Great post!

  10. I love your eloquent way of writing on a very interesting subject always adding the war history into the story.

    • You know me I always have to work in the military history talk 🙂 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post!

  11. Your post demonstrates so clearly that events we consider to be the effects of climate change have been with us a good long while. As a matter of fact, there was a time when the midwest was being scoured by glaciers, and a time when the Cretaceous Interior Seaway, a narrow, shallow sea, covered the interior of our country, connecting the modern Gulf of Mexico and the modern Arctic Ocean. I’m convinced that at least a part of the irrational anxiety about climate change results from the belief that if we created it, we can fix it. Truth is, some things are not amenable to human control. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attend to the issues, and find reasonable ways to change, but we certainly need to keep the Law of Unintended Consequences in mind!

    As for your wonderful examples, our Texas February freeze certainly makes those Russian examples understandable! As for ball lightning, I’ve seen it. When I was in grade school, a ball came into our house (presumably through the front door or windows), sped through the kitchen, and went out the back door. There’s no doubt that it was there. The scorched linoleum was proof. Today, someone would have thought to take a photo of it, but Dad just pulled out the old stuff, and Mom got the new flooring she’d wanted for some time!

    • Oh my goodness – your Texas freeze had me feeling very deeply for all of you! I hope you and yours managed to get through it with as little damage/suffering as possible. And how exciting for me to have an eye-witness to ball lightning comment on this post!!! I have read many accounts but have never got to talk to someone who has actually seen it! I’m glad it didn’t injure anybody and that the damage was fixable. What color was it? How big was it? Did it make any noise?

      • I still have a clear visual memory of it. I remember it being about the size of a basketball, but of course it was moving fast and I only had a glimpse. It had to be relatively small to get through the kitchen door, down the small set of stairs, and out the back screen door without scorching the door frames. What’s odd is that the only damage was in the kitchen; there wasn’t any damage to the living room or dining room rugs or furnishings. The front door was open, with only a screen door there. Maybe that metal attracted it — I sure don’t know.

        What I most remember is the smell; a combination of the burned linoleum and what I now know is the ozone smell of lightning. There must have been some kind of sound, but I don’t remember it at all. I do remember all the neighbors stopping by to look at our kitchen floor!

      • Wow that’s insane!!! What a cool story! I’m very glad no one was hurt and the damage was minimal. It sounds like your experience is pretty on par with many others I’ve read, right down to the funky ozone smell afterward. And it might not have made a sound – many times when ball lightning has appeared, it is silent. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your personal experience with crazy ball lightning, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it!

  12. Thank you for sharing these, at times weird, at times wonderful, weather stories, M.B. Let’s hope that the smart people will use their smarts to help solve the climate crisis instead of creating ever more fearful weapons for the wars you fear we can’t shake.
    Tanja

  13. I have the deepest respect for Mother Nature, but I do enjoy her “comical wacky days”, as you say… and I particularly enjoy the perfection she displays on days just like today. A wonderful and informative post!

    • Mother Nature does provide a lot of good along with the crazy 🙂 And you are absolutely right, sometimes nothing beats sitting outside on a perfect sunny day. A lesson I’ve learned having my own porch at our new house! 🙂

  14. Wonderful post, M.B.! I’ve studied weather a bit myself (took a weather and climate class in college in the early aughts, even). Love watching thunderstorms. Sat on a sandstone cap at Lake Powell as four separate storms were converging from all directions. There’s a story.

    I don’t think I’ve seen ball lightning, but once after a strike near my house a bright mid-air flash exploded in my living room between me and the TV.

    I read a story about fish falling from the sky. Seems it’s usually some aquatic creature or other.

    Your writing style really carries the story along.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post! Wow I bet that was something at Lake Powell! Did you happen to catch any photos? That’s also crazy about what happened in your living room – glad no one was hurt! Lightning is certainly unpredictable. I had some fry my laptop when I left it plugged in on accident during a storm, but that’s about the extent of it for my personal encounters with freaky lightning.

      • My closest call was when lightning hit the building I worked in. I was outside holding one of the poolside umbrellas (yeah, a metal pole). It fried our phone system and traveled through the ground to a nearby building and blew out a TV and a stereo.

        No, I didn’t get any photos of the Powell storms. Pre-cell phone days.😁

      • Ahhhh yes, the days before cell phones haha. I used to have to bring so many disposable cameras on vacations!

  15. MB, as always, I really enjoyed your post – this one was terrific! Only those who have lived in the Midwest really get how the weather there is … well, more weather-y! 😉

    • Yes exactly haha! And one day will be totally different from the next! Glad to be back in the thick of the weather-y with our move. Hope you are doing very well!

  16. Here in New England we don’t see extreme weather events with the exception of the odd nor’easter in winter that dumps huge amounts of snow upon us. We do get some strong in line winds that damage trees. Wild weather can be frightening and we marvel at the threats hurricanes and tornadoes pose for folks. That lenticular cloud is gorgeous.

    • Living by mountains in Los Angeles for years, I saw many lenticular clouds, but certainly none as spectacular as that one was. I saw it in Colorado over the Rockies. I’ve never been to New England, but I would like to remedy that very soon! 🙂

  17. All very interesting and somewhat scary stories! Thanks for sharing. I can say the the weather here in the midwest is not much different that what we experienced in Western New York growing up. Mostly, I think it is because the latitude is similar. We did have heavier snows in Buffalo and Rochester, NY but it was due to lake effect. And, believe it or not, I’ve had one scary tornado experience there and one here! I agree that climate change is occurring and we will probably continue to have wacky weather.

    • I’ve had some tornado close-calls as well! Those are one of the things that make me respect mother nature very much haha. And I agree, the weather is only getting wackier, but it’s nice to see so many people trying to do a better job with the environment.

  18. wow great shots to highlight your engrossing story! As a vego I’m not really into soda or mussels, so I’m with the Southampton chap 🙂

    I also love storms, love watching the come in, being out in them … we had an amazing light show here recently that I’ve only seen equalled in India!

    Well I’m also a chappy whose worked with the military but I think my prayers were only copied x 20 and certainly never got any stars 🙂 But my WOE poem did earn and is the only poem I’ve ever seen featured in an art gallery 🙂

    • I think I do remember you mentioning once that you had worked with the military and I know I’ve read some of your poems about it before 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, it was a fun one to write. I really missed thunderstorms in California. We haven’t had one yet but I know they will come soon and I’m very excited! 🙂

      • glad of that 🙂

        Was thinking about your publishing … I’ve heard much about wars directly from our military personnel but the book that had biggest impact on me was “a rose for the ANZAC boys” by Jackie French. It’s worth looking at her work but it is told from the female perspective. People often forget that the women are heavily impacted by wars also and telling of their efforts and how they survived is also important 🙂

      • I’ll have to check that book out! The novel I wrote that got me a literary agent is also from the female perspective, so I think I would like this book recommendation.

  19. Great balls of fire! I’ve never seen them, I somewhat envy Linda’s (shoreacres) experience of them. Fine article, nice photographs as well. You might enjoy Mitch Dobrowner’s photographs of extreme weather (http://mitchdobrowner.com).

    • Whoa!!! Those are some great photos – thanks so much for sharing them here. And I’m very glad you liked the post! I’d like to see ball lightning too, I just hope I don’t get zapped too hard if I do 🙂

    • Ball lightning is definitely fascinating! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it

  20. What else can we do but, as you say, enjoy the show, MB? Case in point: Act 1: We woke up to a thick blanket of snow in Cincinnati this morning. Act 2: Within a few hours the snow was gone and the sun was blazing. Act 3: By late afternoon a snow shower had blown in and re-coated everything. Epilogue (I hope): It’s evening now, the sun is out in full force, and the snow is gone again! Pass the popcorn, please.

    • LOL!!! Sounds quite similar to Indiana. Sunday and Monday it was gorgeous, we sat outside on the porch most of the day. It’s been cold and snowy the last two days, then by next week it’s supposed to be in the 70s! Moody Midwest Spring!

  21. Very interesting story! Especially when intertwined with the different wars. You knowledge of history never ceases to amaze me!

  22. Fascinating as always, MB! I am addicted to programs about strange weather events. Perhaps it is because I grew up in Scotland with 4 seasons in one day. I remember snow in June once…

    • Oh no! I don’t think I can even claim June snow in Iowa where I grew up lol. I’ve always wanted to visit Scotland as we have a decent amount of heritage there. One of these days when we can travel again!

  23. For some reason, I don’t think that the weather will hamper anyone if a third world war breaks out.
    That aside, I enjoyed the frog rain and the theory behind the ball lightning.

    • Certainly not cold weather anyway, with how things are going. I’m very glad you enjoyed the post!

  24. Wow – I’ve heard of some weird weather incidents, but these are truly bizarre. The woman in Somerset in the 1950s writes very prettily about shaking the wee frogs from her hair, but Ew.

    • I know right?! If frogs got tangled in my hair like that I don’t think I would handle it so gracefully!

  25. Um, frogs in my hair might just freak me out. lol. I am LOVING all of the innovations we are seeing out there. Also love that taking care of the environment is now a real thing and people are able to earn a living doing some really cool stuff. Somehow my family is related to Patton thought not entirely sure how – I need to dig a little deeper there. As usual, awesome post!

    • Ooooh that’s some interesting lineage there! 🙂 He was definitely a character. And I completely agree, frogs in the hair wouldn’t fly with me. Not one bit.

  26. Brava! I thoroughly enjoyed your history of weird weather, M.B. It was completely compelling and had me fascinated from beginning to end. (Then even at the end I zipped over to your sky link, which was also a treat.) This essay is so well-written, researched, interesting and fun. I really appreciate the upbeat energy driving it, and you even had good things to say about climate change. Wonderful photos too.

    • Oh yay! I’m so very glad you enjoyed the post and the photos! That’s very high praise coming from you, since your photos are always so beautiful and amazing 🙂 <3

  27. Ball lightning? Wow. That’s so cool. Amazing blog! I learned so much, and i will definitely tell all my friends about ur blog. Thanks for sharing.

  28. Wow, some amazing stories of weather phenomena… raining frogs sounds like something you’d see in a silly spoof movie.

    • The movie “Magnolia” from the 90s actually has a major scene at the end with a big frog shower. I wondered if they got the idea from some of these accounts! 🙂

  29. I probably don’t have to tell you how much I love this post, though I am a little sad I’ve never been caught in a frog storm.

    • Haha! I’m actually okay not being caught in a frog storm, but I am very sad I’ve never seen ball lightning in person!

  30. Great post full of cool stories. Here in Arkansas our weather is weird in terms of its unpredictability. Frost one night, humid with a chance of tornadoes the next. Sigh…

    • Haha sounds a bit like the Midwest! 🙂 🙂 We had snow and 70s all in one week hahaha

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